Sex-trafficked girls will soon have a sanctuary

The Tampa charity Bridging Freedom, which helps child victims of human trafficking, is developing a therapeutic safe house campus community at an undisclosed location in Pasco County.

It will begin to accept girls this spring, once its first safe house is completed.

Laura Hamilton is the president of Bridging Freedom. She founded the organization in 2011 after working for a time with the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking. (Kevin Weiss)

The Bridging Freedom campus— situated on nearly 100 acres of donated land—will ultimately encompass seven homes, a lodge and a chapel. It will serve dozens of female victims under the age of 18 from Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, by providing long-term, comprehensive survivor care.

The concept marks the first of its kind serving female minors in the Tampa area.

Construction of infrastructure at the campus site began in 2016. Assistance for the project has come from state funding, corporations, local law enforcement and other stakeholders.

Two homes have since been sponsored and are currently being built.

The first therapeutic home—funded by Sykes Enterprises—will feature eight individual bedrooms and bathrooms, plus an educational room, counseling room, and a staff and nurse office.

A second four-bedroom home — funded by Lazydays R.V. Center Inc. — will serve as the intake home for girls rescued from sex trafficking.

Bridging Freedom is seeking sponsors to build the five remaining homes, either from corporate or philanthropic organizations.

Girls will be referred to the property mainly through rescues by law enforcement and the Florida Department of Children and Families, said Laura Hamilton, president of Bridging Freedom.

There’s no doubt about the need.

Florida reports as the third-largest state for human trafficking, with 329 reported cases in 2017, according to the Polaris Project and National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Locally, the Tampa FBI rescues approximately 50 or more child sex-trafficking victims per year; most of them are girls.

The nearly 100-acre Bridging Freedom campus will encompass seven homes, a lodge and a chapel. It will serve dozens of female victims under the age of 18 from Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, by providing long-term, comprehensive survivor care. (Courtesy of Bridging Freedom)

Few rehabilitative facilities are available to place them, however.

Rescued girls are either placed in runaway shelters, domestic violence shelters or foster care — with little to no rehabilitative treatment.

Hamilton founded Bridging Freedom in 2011 after working for a time with the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking.

There she discovered when children and teens were rescued from the street, there were no places for them to go for treatment and counseling, to ease their transition to normal lives.

“I started doing research, and that’s when I realized (child sex trafficking) wasn’t in just India, Cambodia, Thailand, Russia. It was here in the United States, it was here in Florida and here in my own backyard,” Hamilton said.

“We thought we were just bringing awareness to the community; we never thought we’d be doing this,” she added.

Bridging Freedom will specifically address what’s called ‘traumatic bonding,’ where children have bonded with their trafficker or abuser.

Victim’s stays could last anywhere from six months to two years, as they get treatment one-on-one from professionally trained psychologists and social workers. Recurring funds already in place will be used to hire those direct service providers.

“It takes a whole program for these girls to find healing from the trauma they enforced,” Hamilton said.

“If she’s wanting to run, if she’s had a trigger, goes into some crisis mode, she gets scared or she becomes angry, we’re there, right there, one-on-one to track her. That’s what’s working in other parts of the country, and we need to bring that here to Florida.”

At the therapeutic safe home campus, survivors will also receive the following services:

  • Medical care from a clinical director, clinical therapists and licensed nurses
  • Alcohol and drug rehabilitation from licensed medical professionals
  • Therapeutic recreation, such as equine and art therapy, and gardening
  • Education from teachers board-certified through the Florida Department of Education
  • Life skills to help survivors adjust to life outside of the home
  • Career development and shadowing to prepare teen survivors to be independent adults
  • Transitional mentorship to provide support for survivors after they leave the home

Hamilton said Bridging Freedom’s safe house program is modeled after Wellspring Living, an Atlanta-based group founded in 2001. According to its website, Wellspring Living “provides trauma-informed care to survivors of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking in the service of physical, emotional and spiritual restoration.”

Details on the progress of Bridging Freedom and its sanctuary campus were revealed at a Nov. 16 joint press conference at the Pasco Sheriff’s Office in New Port Richey. Guest speakers, among others, included attorney general Pam Bondi, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco, Pasco Sheriff Cpl. Alan Wilkett and Irene Sullivan, a retired Florida circuit court judge.

Each praised the organization and the need for more safe house campuses.

“The demand is great for these homes; the supply is scarce,” said Sullivan, who for 12 years handled delinquency, dependency and domestic violence cases until retiring in 2010.

She added: “It’s a wonderful, wonderful opportunity to take care of these girls. They need therapy, they need to talk to other girls, and they certainly need Bridging Freedom…”

Wilkett is the commander of the Pasco County Human Trafficking Task Force. He also serves as chairman of the Board of Directors for Bridging Freedom.

In October, Wilkett was recognized as the “Law Enforcement Official of the Year” at the 2017 Human Trafficking Summit, held in Orlando

For him, the safe house campus community “can’t come together fast enough.”

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, with this horrific crime of human trafficking,” Wilkett said.

“Whether they’re domestic minor sex trafficking victims or national sex trafficking victims, we have a responsibility…to restoring childhood opportunities, birthdays and freedoms to those that have had it stolen.”

Fighting human trafficking long-term starts with harsher prison sentences for its consumers, Wilkett said.

“The only way to impact this strategically and long-term is to take out the demand,” he said, “so we’ve got to enhance the penalties and go after the buyers.”

Experts say the Tampa Bay area’s tourism, adult entertainment, and international seaport and airport industries create a lucrative and highly accessible environment for sex-traffickers.

Minor victims of sex trafficking, meanwhile, are typically kidnapped or have run away from home.

Florida has approximately 30,000 to 40,000 teenage runaways and throwaways each year, some being abused by a family member or forced out of their homes. In the Tampa Bay area, 75 percent of trafficked children are runaways.

Solving that issue takes a community working together, unafraid to report suspicious activity, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said during the press conference.

“It has to be an all-hands on deck approach,” Bondi said. “We have to work together as a state, as a country, and transnationally as a world to stop this.”

For information, visit BridgingFreedom.org.

By the Numbers
300,000: On average, the number of children in the United States that are prostituted annually

12: The average age that a trafficked victim is first used for commercial sex

2,700: The number of child sex-trafficking victims rescued by the FBI in the U.S., the past 10 years

3: Florida’s rank for the number of calls received by the national human trafficking hotline

83 percent: The percentage of sex trafficking victims identified in the United States as U.S. citizens, according to a study of U.S. Department of Justice human trafficking task force cases

52: The approximate number of local child sex-trafficking victims rescued in 2015

Less than 250: How many shelter beds there are for commercially sexually exploited children in the U.S.

Source: Bridging Freedom

Published November 29, 2017

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